Embracing the Church’s historic mission

by
17 February 2017

Bishop North’s stance on women’s ordination is not the crucial aspect of his appointment, says Thomas Carpenter

PA

Deprived area: a tram rides past flats on the Park Hill Estate, in Sheffield

Deprived area: a tram rides past flats on the Park Hill Estate, in Sheffield

MRS SMALL is a traditionalist, and yet she does not give a damn who is to be the next Bishop of Sheffield (News, 3 February). A deaf, blind, self-styled “pal of God” in her mid-nineties, she lost what little will she had to live on Christmas Eve, when two friends visited her nursing home with the news that her church, in which she had wor­shipped since it was consecrated in 1935, was going to close down after midnight mass.

The boiler is broken, and the roof leaks. Only eight decades since the foundation stone, brought over from the abbey of St Hilda at Whitby, was dedicated by the Rt Revd Philip North’s predecessor, the Church of England’s work in this parish — where dependence on bene­­­fits is more than ten per cent higher than even the average in Barnsley — is over.

Since 1935, Mrs Small’s neigh­bours, like the residents of most pit villages in the diocese of Sheffield, have needed the Church’s pro­tection. During the Depression in which it was erected, unemployed mine­­workers were humiliated by the means test.

The then Vicar — the man, in­­cidentally, to inspire the young Mrs Small’s faith — condemned the test, in words reported in the Church Times, as a “damnable thing” that drove young jobless men on to the streets. Their successors will have no priest to speak for them, no vicarage where they might be helped, and no church in which to pray for a job.

There is a church near by (if you have a car), but it has not had a full-time vicar for years. Instead, it is visited by two dedicated priests with parishes of their own, for which they will be held accountable when their ministerial-development review comes round.

On its website, just below its name and above a picture of a newly married couple kissing in front of a smiling priest, the C of E states that it is “a Christian pres­ence in every community”. Present, perhaps, but, as the story of Mrs Small’s village shows, not really there.

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THIS situation is a scandal. Yet, in a reaction typical of the C of E’s departure from the tradition of its ministry to the poor, it is proposed that Mrs Small’s village be assigned a pioneer ordinand. A community desperate for stable and authentic Christian witness is set to become yet another laboratory for experi­ments in religious gentrification.

I need not prove the bias of the C of E towards the rich: Mrs Small’s new Bishop has done it himself by publicising the difference between the average sum spent on ministry per churchgoer (£7.87) with the figure spent on the same urgent task in city estates (£5.07) (News, 19 February 2016).

What Bishop North will find in Sheffield is an altogether more worrying, though well-intentioned, bias towards middle-class religion. Patterns of ministry made to fit the lifestyles of atomised young com­muters in the west of Sheffield — where, tellingly, you will find the Bishop’s house — are being im­­ported into close, working-class communities, whose residents do not have jobs, let alone problems with the work-life balance.

Behind this kindly meant revolu­tion lurks the vague sense that the world has changed since Mrs Small’s church was consecrated, and that something different must be done. The world may have changed; villages like hers have changed less. I need only recall the first baptism I performed, which was one of her church’s last, when I mortified the three godparents — two men and a woman, all in their twenties — by asking them to read the responses loudly; they could not read them at all.

To those things that have changed, like the vast extent of drug addic­tion among the young, and the loss of any sense of purpose among people of all ages, traditional par­ish ministry is the answer. Forced to chose between fidelity to the Church’s historic mission to the poor, and commitment to constant reinvention designed to suit the superficial lives of the rich, the Church has chosen the latter.

 

IF BISHOP NORTH has been picked to prove that a traditional Catholic can preside over the dis­mantling of the Church’s witness in deprived areas just as reas­sur­ingly as an Evangelical with an MBA on the wall of his study, it would have been kinder to leave him where he is.

Instead, the Crown Nominations Commission has chosen a person who understands, as he wrote re­­cently in this paper, that “until the Church reinvests in urban ministry, places the best leaders in the most deprived parishes, and returns to the estates it has abandoned” it will not be heard in the places where its gospel is most relevant (Comment, 2 December).

The C of E must, indeed, choose, as Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank write in For the Parish: A critique of Fresh Expressions (SCM Press, 2010), “to embrace
her his­toric mission to evangelise and serve the whole people of this country, or to decline into a sect”.

It is because he might make a different choice from that of most recently appointed bishops, and not because of his stance on women’s ordination, that Bishop North’s appointment matters.

Indeed, unless the least sub­versive aspect of his episcopate turns out to be his attitude to women bishops, Mrs Small’s great-grandchildren will have no idea why she was visited every Tuesday by a man in a black dress, who put a small disk of bread on her tongue.

 

The Revd Dr Thomas Carpenter is Assistant Curate of Goldthorpe with Hickleton, and Bolton-upon-Dearne, in the diocese of Sheffield.

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